The demise of Korean StarCraft 2

With the closing of the StarCraft Proleague along with four Korean eSports Association teams, Korean StarCraft 2 is in perhaps its worst financial state ever. The region has been in a strange place from the very outset of the game 2. It was the sequel to Brood War, and it was accepted worldwide as the next RTS game everywhere — except in Korea. Brood War was, and will likely always be, the flagship RTS game and was still running side-by-side with SC2 after it came out. At the same time, the vast majority of skill and talent came from Korea and came to dominate the game.

This created a strange kind of fan culture as SC2 is the game where the region with the highest skill was met with the most apathetic attitude of any game I’ve ever watched. But the much bigger concern was in Korea itself. The lifeblood of a region comes from its teams and sponsors. And those come from viewers in the local region itself.

Viewership in Korea was incredibly small. The game was never adopted on a large scale and it ended up being a niche game in the PC Bangs and esports in general. This was exacerbated by the long legal battle Blizzard had with KeSPA over broadcasting rights for Brood War.

From the very start, SC2 was fighting an uphill battle in Korea, and none of the teams created during that time survived to the current day, except for MVP and StarTale. Things changed a bit when KeSPA was forced to end Brood War and move over. Those were the big teams that could function forever so long as SC2 gave them a reason to. As it turned out, it didn’t. It was never popular enough locally, and after trying for a few years, Proleague finally ended this year. At the same time, all of KeSPA pulled out of the game except for Afreeca, MVP and Jin Air.

All three teams did it for different reasons. MVP did it because that follows its general M.O., which is to go into less popular games in Korea and succeed. Afreeca did it because they’ve always loved Brood War and SC2 and was the only big sponsor to enter the scene in Korea in the last few years. In Jin Air’s case, the entire team was started because the daughter of the CEO of Jin Air had a passion for the game, so it’s likely a passion project rather than any belief in SC2’s financial future.

In addition to all of that were two other concerns. As I said earlier, SC2 never caught on with the general public so as time went on, teams could afford fewer players as they continued to cut more and more players. There was an obvious out to all of this for a Korean pro, and that was to get onto an international team, as SC2 was still popular outside of Korea. This route was shut off by the hard region lock, which forced more retirements both directly and indirectly.

The situation in Korea got worse as multiple match fixing scandals, most prominently one including Lee “Life” Seung Hyun, did some unquantifiable damage to the scene’s integrity and sponsorship.

So now with KeSPA and Proleague completely out of SC2, where will Korean players go? The answer is unclear. The only three professional teams are Jin Air, Afreeca and MVP. The only one we can say is likely to have good pay is Jin Air. And all three teams are full, though I suppose if they wanted, they could all assemble a super team of SC2 players for cheap.

SC2 in Korea is reverting to a 2010 era level ecosystem, except with much less optimism and much fewer opportunities. No one knows how many Korean tournaments will be held next year. This year, multiple tournaments were promised in the form of KeSPA and hot6ix cups as well as global tournaments. In the end, there were only three: One IEM Invitational at the start of the year for eight players, one KeSPA Cup and Homestory Cup.

This scene is similar to the Korean Street Fighter scene in a sense. Korea has always had some Tekken tournaments, but very few — if any — Street Fighter tournaments, so the only player who could be a pro was Lee “Infiltration” Seon-Woo. For those who do not know, he is among the greatest players in the current FGC era and I’d argue the greatest in Street Fighter X Tekken, Street Fighter V and at least Top 3 in Street Fighter IV (over the span of it’s lifetime and various iterations).

In the same sense, only the top echelon of players may be able to survive, as tournaments and streaming are the only sources of revenue. And in the case of streaming, I’m pessimistic because they can’t stream toward Western viewing hours, and Koreans don’t watch SC2.

And while Korean SC2 may end up with more regional tournaments than the Korean Street Fighter scene, the Korean Street Fighter scene can go abroad and many of its players are often directly sponsored by the fans (/r/kappa) to compete and do so. The most notable names to do so are Infiltration, Lee “Poongko” Chung Gon and Xyzzy (no name was found). Even if the SC2 scene wanted to do this, they can’t as Koreans are barred from all international competition.

So what will Blizzard do in response? Blizzard supports both the foreign and Korean scene. The difference is that the foreign scene is still supported by IEM and DreamHack. Korea is not. Neither seems particularly interested in helping Korean players. From their perspective all Korean players bring is great gameplay, which is something they can’t justify supporting as a majority of fans themselves don’t seem to support it.

And Blizzard itself has already spent an enormous amount of money in prize pools and sponsorships to run these individual leagues in Korea. At what point do they say enough is enough?

Back at the very beginning of SC2, Lim “NesTea” Jae Duk was told by his friends, his colleagues, his family to not play. He had a choice between the safe, normal life or an insane risk to play SC2 professionally. He took the risky choice. He wasn’t the only one, as countless other Korean players ignored the risk in the face of optimism of what looked to be a wild new world. Now six years later, Koreans will once again be forced with the same dilemma. This time, I think, most of them will take the safer choice.

Cover photo by Patrick Strack/ESL, eslgaming.com

Slingshot senior columnist. StarCraft and CS:GO expert who pushes narratives over numbers. You can reach him at Stephen@Slingshotesports.com

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